Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Last of the Replicants

In last week’s Sunday Times, Michael Kimmelman urges his city to hasten the replacement of “the calamity that is Penn Station.” Its contrast with Grand Central Station is indeed stunning; one scurries, head down, through Penn Station’s indistinguishable corridors, while the airy heights of Grand Central create a sense of wonder and scale that evokes the best of the urban experience.

But when the trains do finally switch over to the reinvented Post Office Building next door (and it sounds as if this will not happen for quite some time, nor even that commuter rail will join Amtrak in the new building), something very distinctive about a certain era of New York will be lost. Today, we wonder how the city could possibly have razed the old, glorious Pennsylvania Station, but Kimmelman allows that it “had declined by the end into a symbol of gilded age opulence.” Penn Station will never attain beauty or even charm, but its modernist labyrinth is typical of an era whose architectural legacy, now so utterly out of fashion, is fast being erased from the landscape.

I can think of several similar, if smaller-scale, landmarks in my own life that are on their way out. One of the high schools, Newton North, in my hometown was recently replaced by a new, far more functional building hyped as the first “green” high school in the country. The old building was a monstrosity best suited for a prison, but it was nothing if not distinctive – a dead ringer for the school where those eighties teens served detention in The Breakfast Club. The school where I currently work is slowly replacing its functional but dull annex that rose in the sixties. And, on a street a couple blocks from my apartment, a Safeway dating from the late fifties will soon make way for a much larger grocery, itself only one section of a mixed-use development.

These buildings matter. They demonstrate the limits of planning and the inexorable ability of history to compromise practicality and aesthetic appeal. In conversation the other day, an acquaintance of mine pointed out how Safeway’s new mixed-use shopping complex will promote health by encouraging shoppers to walk and bike to the store. I don’t disagree, but the people who planned the old store thought the same thing, except that cars and convenience were the determinants of well-being during their era. The heyday of modernist optimism was particularly heady – tragically so – and when it is no longer around us to remind us of its failures, we risk repeating its mistakes.

Penn Station represents that bleak but fascinating nadir in New York’s recent history: the seventies. Its tunnels are a dystopian landscape, devoid of anything organic or decorative beyond advertisements. Its austere functionality reflected, even exacerbated the dire situation of the city as it descended into anarchic bankruptcy. Practicality was compromised because the architecture discouraged anyone from lingering and developing a sense of place. The movie Blade Runner captures this feeling in its chaotic vision of the future. The best of a legion of sci-fi films that examine a future gone wrong through the limits of centralized planning, its hero, Deckard, prowls a crowded, placeless, and sunken streetscape, where the only light is dim and fluorescent. His world is dead, but when he does finally come across something vivid and compelling, it is all the more worthwhile. 

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